Lately, dining out in Manhattan has been feeling a lot like dining in a high school cafeteria. The seats at the popular table are filled with everyone who is anyone, and unless you have Daddy’s Porsche or are cheer captain, you’ll never get to sit. Which is why it has been so difficult to round up my friends for a proper meal in this city. Suggest a reservation, and you’ll receive reservations. “What a headache,” one friend, a spunky PR princess purported. “It’s too expensive to eat anywhere these days, if you can even get a reservation at a good place … it’s like a fucking aristocracy.” No doubt the economic downturn has affected many of my comrades’ fun-funds, making the all-important New York dinner an endangered species. Our “industry” has peer-pressured us into thinking that the only bite worth eating is one we can barely afford, so how do you convince the industry folk that cheap eats can be chic eats?
Last night I gathered a group of fellow editors, stylists, foodies, fashion PR persons, and nightlifers and made a reservation at ‘wichcraft to prove that dinner can be done, and be done well, even if it isn’t a recession-proof McNally favorite.
“So, what is this, like a sandwich shop?” A friend, we’ll call him D, asks as we gather on the street corner near the Gramercy outpost. We must have been too busy taking out loans for our next dinner at the Waverly Inn to notice neighborhood staples like ‘wichcraft adjusting to meet the needs of their patrons in this less-than-balmy economic climate. The go-to lunch spot has introduced a seriously under-hyped new dinner menu in the hideaway upstairs. Chef Sisha churns out creative, hefty plates like blackened beef short ribs, served with a bright tomato salad and pitch-perfect horseradish cream, and the marinated eggplant & goat cheese — a vegetarian favorite — for a puny price. In fact, all 19 dishes on the menu are under $11. Many of last night’s attendees, even the reservation-wielding fashion editors, were dumbfounded to find that Tom Colicchio’s standby sandwich shop had the capacity to produce such refined plates.
Even more surprising: the ambiance of the second floor dining room provided a simple elegance that allowed for dinner-party-caliber seating (there were 15 of us), intimate date nooks, and even some table hopping. Tiny tea lights, stark artwork, and clean lines dominate the space, allowing the focus to fall on your food and friends. “How did you find this place?” someone asked, sure that this was some secret dining club, or fabulous new speakeasy. Aside from the fact that you’ll get some serious street cred from foodie friends, the place stands out for a number of different merits. Reactions were documented.
Subject: Steven Rojas. Occupation: Man about town (really, a director at Archetype Showroom). Favorite Restaurant: Employees Only. So, how were the drinks? We had white wine for the table, which was plentiful and very good. The dishes are shareable; how are the portions? Each seemed perfect, not too filling, but also hearty I guess you could say? Like, I was interested to try a little bit, and then ended up eating the entire dish? A dish like the meatballs with garlic seemed small, but we split that between two people, and we felt stuffed. How is the food in general? Interesting items, but so good. It was almost surprising that I found myself cleaning the plate of something called pork & pickle. The avocado & radish salad was strangely delicious — a perfect opener and a great alternative to an appetizer salad. I really loved the blackened beef short ribs. The horseradish crème was not overpowering. Is the vibe of the dining room conducive to a group dinner? Yes. But it’s sort of what you make it. We talked about vulgar things, got drunk, and I got some hot girl’s number. It could also be a fun date place. There’s something romantic about sharing plates. How are the prices? I have no idea how I can pay $9 for amazing, creative ceviche here, and $19 for it at another restaurant. It seems like the more creative you get with dishes, the more expensive it is, but I would have to disagree in this case. It seems like I ripped the place off, instead of the other way around, which is the usual. Who would you bring to a place like this? Well, we had a big group, but for $16 bottles of wine, I foresee some after work happy hours. And I’m already planning on taking someone here for a date.
The Bottom Line: With friendly wait staff, a hidden dining room, $16 bottles of wine, and creative food pairings that impresses even the most faddish of guests, perhaps we’ll be able to put focus on great neighborhood favorites the next time we dine, rather than the new hot place.